George Wyllie: Locomotives The Park Gallery Falkirk

Publication: The Times.  
April 2016

George Wyllie
The Park Gallery

George Wyllie, who died in 2012, was that rare thing: an engaged, critically-respected artist with a wide and popular appeal. Wyllie was always fascinated by machinery, mechanisms and engineering but did not begin his career as an artist until relatively late in life, when he was in his mid-50s. He had previously worked as a Customs Officer on various parts of the UK’s coast. The current venue is an apt location for Wyllie’s work. In 1992 he made a public art work to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Edinburgh and Glasgow Railway. ‘Antonine, the Legendary Engine’ stands on Falkirk High station platform and is typical of Wyllie’s style. The welded-steel sculpture offers a foreshortened, or abbreviated, visual interpretation of a steam locomotive, invoking humour, nostalgia and pride in equal measure. Implicit in this work is an acknowledgement of the area’s rich industrial heritage, exemplified by the Carron Company ironworks, founded in 1759. The conceptual and documentary centre-piece is undoubtedly the material relating to Wyllie’s ‘The Straw Locomotive’. Wyllie built the steel, wire and straw structure in 1987, as a public art work, drawing attention to the decline of traditional heavy industry in Glasgow. It certainly conformed to his definition of public art as being “art the public could not avoid”. The life-size replica engine was paraded on a low-loader through the streets of the city before being suspended from the Finnieston Crane on the banks of the Clyde. The structure was then removed and ritually burnt near Springburn, the former hub of Glasgow’s internationally famous locomotive manufacturing. After its incineration, the structure revealed a steel question mark, a symbol that Wyllie adopted as part of his aesthetic and typographic lexicon, illustrated by his spelling: ‘Scul?ture’. For Wyllie’s was a questioning art. In one of the sketches for ‘The Straw Locomotive’, adjacent to a large question mark, he asks: “Where is the great energy of Springburn now?” In a series of quirky drawings and prints entitled ‘An Incomplete History of Transportation in America’ Wyllie writes: “The East coast soon filled up with settlers and when the West coast was discovered that got filled up as well. The railroads were constructed to help fill up the bit in between.” This typifies Wyllie’s approach, which combines satirical humour with political and social critique. Another welded-steel work, in Wyllie’s cartoon-like, structurally abbreviated style, shows a Royal railway carriage on a red velvet cushion. It’s a gentle bit a joshing at the expense of the privileged, but it masks a deeper social concern.

This modest, but well-conceived show, gives an insight into some of Wyllie’s major concerns and methods, although, because of its themed nature it is necessarily limited in scope.For more information on the forthcoming biography, Arrivals and Sailings: The Making of George Wyllie (Polygon)